On a Palm Sunday in the early 1970s, I was confirmed as a member of The United Methodist Church. I was excited to officially join my church, and I looked forward to being active in the large, dynamic youth group which became the cornerstone of my social life throughout my junior high and high school years. At the time, the extent of my church-related knowledge was this: Rev. Yocom would usually answer questions by telling a story about his life, and I looked pretty cute in my mini-skirt and mod white shirt with a band collar and lacy bell-cuffs. A product of the times, I was schooled in a combination of traditional Wesleyan theology (scripture, tradition, reason, experience) and popular theologies, probably summed up via a combination of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and—I’ll admit it—the Beatles. Those influences along with a Jesus people-esque emphasis touting “All you need is Love” and “God is Love” were the basis of my youthful spiritual foundation.
Now I’m embarrassed to admit I belong to the United Methodist Church. I’m appalled that when non-Methodists think of the church, it is most likely based on our draconian approach to dealing with issues relating to homosexuals and those called to minister to them, including Rev. Thomas Ogletree of New York and Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania. I’m puzzled that when there have been opportunities for the church to at least acknowledge that wisdom is needed to help the church determine its role in ministering with and to gays, the church has shut the doors of communication, choosing instead to reaffirm its current position; the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida, made headlines because of its refusal to consider an “agree to disagree” amendment on the topic when it was presented by Rev. Adam Hamilton of Leawood, Kansas, and Rev. Mike Slaughter of Tipp City, Ohio.
The church—any church, not specifically the United Methodists—has the duty and right to interpret scripture and other leadings however its leaders and people feel is correct. I don’t question that. At an organizational level, every church is a human-created and -operated entity that prays it is following the dictates of its understanding of what God requires of his followers. If the best minds and hearts of the Methodist church agree that its treatment of homosexuals and those who minister to them is God-driven, then I won’t question that its people are acting in all sincerity.
But I can’t continue being part of an organization that uses the Wesleyan tradition to exclude and marginalize others. The Methodist tagline—“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”—is still emblazoned on the UMC website; it needs an added note: **unless openly gay. Inviting people based on the idea that we have open minds and open hearts, then slamming the door unless they stay in the closet—that feels like the type of mindset which compelled Jesus to overturn tables at the temple and play word games with Pharisees.
In fact, the Methodist slogan seems tailor-made to welcoming gays, inviting them to leave their closet behind to find community and fellowship with a local congregation. However, many Methodists I know champion the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, a phrase which embeds judgment in a micro-aggressive claim of love. Christian theology via St. Paul claims “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but my job is to love people and support them as they find their path. For me, labeling people as “sinners” is wrong. Jesus was harsh about people who were judgmental and hypocritical. I’m not in any position to throw the first stone—especially because I accept that sexual preference, like eye color and handedness, are inborn; critiquing how God chooses to create people is not my job either.
There are groups within the church which are working for equality and recognition. I applaud their efforts and believe they will ultimately make a difference. I’m not called to actively fight on this issue; I’ve struggled with this since 2005, when at South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, Rev. Edward Johnson refused to let a gay attendee become a member of the church. The church’s position on the issue hasn’t changed; I have. As an enthusiastic 12-year-old, I never considered asking questions about the church’s stance on homosexuality. At this point in my life, I cannot be officially listed as a member of an organization that judges my gay friends and family as unworthy of being treated like a child of God. Those who are fighting for change have my support—and I believe that the way I need to support them is to show that this issue matters enough to me that it’s worth leaving the Methodist church.
I’m proud that my own congregation is more inclusive, and at this point I intend to continue attending there as a non-member, but I’ve also attended a Quaker meeting that comes much closer to fitting my general theological understanding at this point in my life. Eventually that may become my “home church,” but my current Sunday school class offers opportunities for growth and fellowship, and I don’t want to leave that.
One of my favorite songs when I played guitar for my church youth group eons ago was “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” That song is in now in the Methodist hymnal, and instead of long-haired teens with guitars leading it, adult organists perform elaborate introductions to signal the congregation’s singing. The last time I sang that song, surrounded by the beautiful stained-glass windows in my impressive sanctuary, I choked up. Who will know we are Christians by our love? Not our gay brothers and sisters, or those ministering to them. After all my words and justifications, that’s the simple explanation why I’m resigning my membership to the United Methodist Church.